Inside Information: 10 Signs of Internal Illness in Horses

Last Updated on February 25, 2022 by Allison Price

About an hour before sunset, I went out to check on my horses. Solstice was sitting in his paddock eating hay, smiling contentedly, and swimming his tail. He perked his ears when I approached the fence and looked at me with bright, happy eyes.

Sabrina sat quietly in the run-in shed. She looked up at me, poking her head out, then sighed. She walked out of the barn towards me and placed her head over the fence. Then she waited for me.

Wait. Wait. Sabrina wasn’t well.

While Solstice is a lover of cuddling like a golden retriever puppy dog, Sabrina acts like she doesn’t have enough dignity to show affection in public. She would rather chase Solstice around every hay pile, and pin her ears when he attempts to take a bite. She wouldn’t want to sit in the barn and watch him eat her hay, then come to me for scratching the head.

Signs of Internal Illness in Horses

Sabrina lay on the ground for two hours, curling her lips and grunting. I had already called her vet, and he confirmed that Sabrina was colicking based on my description of her symptoms. My vet helped Sabrina with her colic within hours.

When they are dealing with an early illness, horses can provide many cues. Horses don’t want to be sick, but they can.

Elizabeth Davis, DVM., PhD, Dipl., says, “They’re prey species so hiding any evidence is a survival technique.” ACVIM is the professor and chief of the department for clinical sciences at Kansas State University’s Veterinary Health Center in Manhattan.

They can also give subtle warning signs such as Sabrina’s uncharacteristic affection, her sitting quietly in the barn, or not eating hay. This 10-point checklist will help you identify them and take appropriate action.

1. A lack of appetite or a diminished appetite

Is your horse becoming picky or completely uninterested with his food suddenly? Our sources tell us that this is a sign of a brewing illness.

Davis says that a change in appetite for grain, hay, or both is an indicator to me that something isn’t quite right. He used to spend 15 minutes cleaning up his bucket of concentrates. Now it can take 45 minutes, with some breaks to walk around. He might not eat as much hay and be more picky.

A decrease in appetite could be a sign of gastrointestinal problems such as colic. According to Kari Bevevino (internal medicine resident at Texas A&M University in College Station), a waning appetite can indicate gastrointestinal problems beyond the GI system.

She says, “This is one of the most important indicators of disease in different systems of the body.”

2. Diarrhea

As we will discuss in detail on page 18, any change in poop production should be monitored. Bevevino says diarrhea is a particular concern. She says that diarrhea can quickly turn from not-too-bad into very serious in a short time. Early intervention is important for both the horse’s health and that of the veterinarian who is treating him.

Bevevino states that an infectious disease, which can lead to severe illness and death and spread to horses, is the most serious possible cause. salmonella or Clostridium bacterium can cause diarrhea-related infection with different clinical signs.

She says, “Some horses are bright and alert while other horses develop very severe diseases.” Rapid treatment can reduce discomfort, increase chances of recovery, and help the horse owner and veterinarian control disease spread.

She also mentions that diarrhea can also be caused by sand accumulation in your colon, inflammatory bowel diseases, and less often, cancer. Bevevino states that diarrhea, regardless of its cause, can lead to electrolyte and rapid dehydration, which may sometimes require “pretty intensive treatment.”

3. Lethargy and inactivity that is not typical of the group , as well as separation from it .

Our sources advise that horses should be active and keep up with their herd. Bevevino states that a sick horse may stand alone and remain quiet. “By quiet, I refer to him lowering his head, keeping his ears slightly lower than usual, not having his eyes as bright and wide as usual.
as usual.”

Davis suggests that you might also experience subtle lethargy. She says, “Under saddle, he might need to be a little more encouraged to get moving and might run out of gas a bit sooner.” Or the pasture pet suddenly can’t keep up with herdmates.

4. Unusual Behavior

Davis says that if caregivers are attentive to their horses and observe the normal behavior of each horse, they will be able to pick up on the unusual.

She says, “There are certain variations on an individual basis. It’s important that people see horses at least two or three times per day to get to understand them.”

The subtle warning signs might be overlooked by casual observers. She says, “For instance, a very social horse who’d normally be looking for treats is now standing back with his heads down.” “If you are truly in tune, you will know when they’re telling your that something’s wrong.”

Monitoring Technology

Humans can now use new technology to detect subtle clues in horse behavior and vital signs. Farm Jenny makes a sensor that you can attach to the horse’s halter/bridle to track his daily activities. A solar-powered network and an app that’s easy to use allow you to collect and store 24/7 data on your horse’s behavior, movement, and get alerts when something is wrong.

This app is one of many available to monitor your horse’s activity and help you detect illnesses early.

The Horse Staff

5. Fever

The body temperature can be taken objectively, meaning it can be compared to a numerical value. However, it is important to know when it should be taken.

Davis states that you would not be able to tell if a horse is suffering from a fever by simply looking at them or touching them. Sometimes you may be able to see subtle signs like patches of sweating or fast breathing. But those are not always the case.

Bevevino suggests that you keep a digital thermometer, which can be purchased at any drugstore, on hand. Also, learn how to do a rectal temperature test. An adult horse’s temperature should not exceed 101.5 degrees Fahrenheit. However, extreme heat and other environmental factors can push the temperature limit to 102 degrees.

6. Other altered vital signs

Bevevino states that in addition to the body temperature, an abnormal heart rate or respiratory rate can indicate an impending illness. These measurements can be taken with a stethoscope, but not necessarily.

She says, “Count the horses’ breaths by pointing your ear at their nose or chest for 15 seconds. Then multiply that number by four to calculate the rate per minute.” “Most horses should be able to take between 20 and 24 breaths per hour at rest,” she says.

You can measure the horse’s pulse by following certain blood vessels such as the ones under the jaw or the pastern. Compare the 60 second average heartbeat to the healthy one, which is between 28 and 44 beats per hour for a resting adult horse.

Remember that horses are unique and their vitalities can vary so make sure you know what is normal for your horse when they’re healthy.

7. Weight loss and changes in body condition

Our sources say that illness can cause gradual visible signs and take its toll on the body. Davis states that it is possible to see the ribs if there is an underlying condition. Davis says that it could be weight loss or muscle mass loss.

She explains that this type of muscle atrophy is often associated with disease, primarily because of protein metabolism problems.

These signs can appear over time and may be harder for owners to spot because they don’t see their horse as often, according to Bevevino. Photography is a more effective tool than asking for an outsider’s perspective.

She says that the phone’s camera is one of the most useful monitoring tools. To keep track of changes in horse condition, take regular photos at the same angle and with the same lighting.

8. Change in coat quality

Davis says that coat issues are easier to spot in spring and summer. This is when horses should shed well and have shiny, shiny coats. However, problems can also be seen in the fall or winter.

She says that no matter what season it is, if the coat appears a little rougher or less shiny than previous years or if hair loss has occurred, these are indicators that something’s wrong.

Metabolic disorders like pituitary intermedia dysfunction (formerly known under equine Cushing’s disease) can lead to coat problems. These include a lack or elongated hairs (guard), patchiness, and other unusual patterns. You should not ignore coat problems as they could be linked to many internal diseases.

Davis states, “Modifications to the coat are a big sign for me.” Hair quality is directly related to nutritional status. Therefore, changes in the coat could indicate changes in appetite or nutrient absorption ability.

She says Gastric ulcers can be a major cause of poor coat quality. They aren’t getting the nutrients they require, and their overall health status is affected by those ulcers.

9. Changes in bowel habits

Davis says that fecal characteristics, consistency and overall output should all remain relatively constant. She says, “If their diets are consistent, they should be passing approximately the same amount and type of material every day.”

When cleaning out a stall or walking in the paddock, be attentive. She says, “If there are no feces in your stall, it’s probably not normal and could indicate an impaction.” “But, if things move too fast, causing frequent, or soft, feces, it could indicate a disruption to the microflora, which is relatively fragile in the gastrointestinal tract.

Some changes are temporary and normal. They can be caused by stressful events like horse separations or transport. Changes lasting hours or days may be due to parasite burdens, allergic reactions to antibiotics or other gastrointestinal issues. Davis states that horses can become ill from absorbing bacterial byproducts into their intestines. This is known as endotoxemia. It often requires intravenous fluids or anti-inflammatory medications to manage.

Although horses are strong and can mask the severity of their illness, they are not able to fool an in-tune owner.Dr. Kari Vevevino

10. Feeling the need to tell you something is wrong

Sometimes, your intuition can be the first sign of illness. Your horse knows you and is telling your that he’s feeling “off”.

Our sources tell us that even though subtle changes can be difficult to explain, it is important to inform veterinarians about these observations. Because they aren’t as knowledgeable about your horse as you, despite all their scientific knowledge.

Bevevino states, “If you are worried, I am worried.” Although horses are resilient and can mask the severity of their illness, they can sometimes be difficult to fool an experienced handler.

Testing and treatment

Subtle signs of illness are not usually indicative of specific diseases. Because many conditions can cause similar symptoms, your horse could be signaling that he is suffering from any of the following: liver disease, infection, pneumonia, colic. Call your veterinarian instead of waiting for more serious issues.

Bevevino says that if the condition is slowing down, you may be able to make an appointment within a few days. Your vet should be notified if you notice signs that are sudden or rapid. Early treatment is better than waiting.

Although your vet may not be able to diagnose the problem immediately, a thorough exam will reveal it. Davis suggests that the veterinarian should feel for discomfort and inflammation and then assess how hydrated they are. An abnormality in blood can indicate a problem system. An urinalysis may provide important information about the kidney function and metabolism.

Bevevino says that ultrasound allows the veterinarian check vital organs like the liver and lungs. High-quality radiography is available to the veterinarian if the horse is in hospital. This allows the vet to look for problems such as gastrointestinal or pulmonary diseases.

Your veterinarian might perform a polymerase chain reactions (PCR) on blood, feces or nasal discharge samples to determine if there is an infectious cause.

Your veterinarian may test for proteins that indicate inflammation. For example, serum Amyloid A (SAA). Bevevino states that the test might be repeated several times over a period of time. “This will allow us to determine if inflammation is present in the disease. If it is, how is it changing, worsening, or improving? We have it in our arsenal to monitor and evaluate the response to treatment.

Our sources tell us that specific treatment will depend on the results of diagnostic testing. Our sources say that most horses can benefit from supportive care, such as intravenous fluids and anti-inflammatories. They also need to be able to stagger in a quiet, comfortable environment.

Take-Home Message

Targeted treatment can speed healing and increase the chances of a horse recovering by recognizing illness early. Handlers can quickly get their horses the treatment they need by learning how to recognize the early signs of illness.

Allison Price
Allison Price

I’m Allison, born and raised in San Diego California, the earliest memory I have with horses was at my grandfather’s farm. I used to sit at the stable as a kid and hang out with my Papa while he was training the horses. When I was invited to watch a horse riding competition, I got so fascinated with riding!